Why We Should Tackle Mental Health First

When you think about taking care of yourself, what comes to mind? For most of us, the answer is easy. Taking care of yourself means eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, staying current on medical exams and checkups, and getting enough sleep. Sounds like a good list—but take another look. It’s all about the body. Despite knowing that almost one in four Americans will experience a diagnosable mental illness, we tend to forget mental health when we think about taking care of ourselves. It’s time for that to change.

The Mind-Body Connection

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Image via Flickr by tomwoolridge

It’s important to remember that the good things we do for our bodies are also good for our minds. Sometimes, a home-cooked meal or good night’s sleep is just what we need to shake a lingering sadness, and there’s nothing like exercise to work through anxiety or anger.

But it works the other way too. Even a relatively minor untreated mental disorder can have negative effects on physical health. People suffering from mental illness may inadvertently neglect their diets and other healthy habits. Mental illness often causes sleep disruption and can even impact the functioning of the immune system, making people more susceptible to and less able to fight illness and infection.

Mental Symptoms Impact Our Physical Health

Doctors who see patients with both physical and psychological complaints often only address the physical issues, expecting that they are the root cause of both problems. The good news is that we know treating underlying mental health issues can have a positive effect on physical health. A 2003 study found that patients with depression and arthritis—both common issues in older adults—experienced decreased physical pain, improved physical function, and higher quality of life after receiving antidepressants to improve their mental health.

Overcoming Obstacles to Good Health

In the past, the diagnosis and care of mental illness took a back seat to that of physical health for a number of reasons. Stigma and fear of discrimination often prevented sufferers and their families from admitting the problems they were facing and seeking help. For those who did seek treatment, a shortage of qualified mental health professionals in many parts of the world made help hard to find. As the World Health Organization reports, “Low-income countries have 0.05 psychiatrists and 0.42 nurses per 100,000 people.”

Increased Mental Health Professionals

Fortunately, as awareness of mental health issues spreads and stigmas recede, more and more medical professionals are choosing careers in mental health. We are learning more about the benefits of helping people care for their mental health, including longer life expectancy, increased productivity, improved financial stability, and happier personal lives. As a result, public and private organizations are recognizing the importance of providing access to affordable mental health care. In the U.S., this progress is evident in the inclusion of mental health care coverage requirements in the Affordable Care Act.

Good health is about more than caring for the body. It is now easier than ever before to add mental health to your self-care checklist. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, or would simply like to know more about available mental health care options, talk to your doctor.